The Basin and Towel

with Indispensable Churches and Tending the Light



September is Suicide Prevention Month

If you are contemplating suicide, please talk to someone now!
OR Please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255 (TALK)

In June my wife Beverly and I had the opportunity to attend a one-day workshop in Fort Wayne on the ministry of the church around the issue of suicide.  We heard difficult conversations about how we think and talk about suicide in the church, how we minister to families and individuals who have confronted suicide, and what we might do to provide emotionally healthy church communities where all people might feel safe.  In fact, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recently suggested that comprehensive suicide prevention efforts in states and communities should focus on several areas that churches might be particularly good at:

  • identifying and supporting people at risk of suicide
  • teaching coping and problem-solving skills to help people manage challenges with their relationships, jobs, health, or other concerns
  • promoting safe and supportive environments
  • offering activities that bring people together so they feel connected and not alone
  • connecting people at risk to effective and coordinated mental and physical healthcare
  • expanding options for temporary help for those struggling to make ends meet, and
  • preventing future risk of suicide among those who have lost a friend or loved one to suicide.
The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s Faith.Hope.Life campaign engages faith leaders and faith communities to promote the characteristics common to faith traditions that also help prevent suicide.  Visit their website at the link above for more information.  While you’re there, check out the National Alliance’s website for the Weekend of Prayer for Faith, Hope, and Life(September 7-9) for more resources about suicide prevention.

Retirement? Really?

I’m a member of a group of Lutheran pastors that meets regularly to discuss all kinds of ministry-related issues.  This morning as we were discussing “bullying in the church” we were on a side note along the question of when manipulation becomes bullying.  The subject of pastors’ behavior in retirement came up  (three of us are retired, three of us are active).


(Note to my non-Lutheran readers:  in our denomination, pastors are not “assigned” to congregations after their first assignment out of the seminary.  We have a “call” system and for the most part it is the decision of the pastor and – presumably – the Holy Spirit as to when and under what circumstances he leaves that call and that congregation.)


So one of the scenarios that we have observed in our system is that it is possible for a pastor of long tenure in a congregation to retire from the office of the pastor of that congregation yet not leave the geographic area.  Often the congregation grants him the title of “Pastor Emeritus” to honor his tenure and ministry among them.  But what is his role there after he retires?


Some pastors make it a practice to disappear from the congregation for as much as a year – worshiping elsewhere, taking no funerals or weddings, being out of communication almost entirely with the congregation for such a long time.  This is hard to contemplate perhaps, but it has the effect of saying to everyone “This era is at an end.  Everyone (congregation and retired pastor and incoming pastor) now needs to deal with it and move on well.”


Some other pastors stay in the area and participate in congregational life, but as a layman.  This is harder to do – to turn down requests for wedding or funerals for people you’ve served in love for years, but it has a similar effect as above.  It’s also hard because the people you’ve served and loved for years keep calling you “pastor” and coming up to you for advice or complaints.  Sometimes it’s just easier to take up membership in a nearby congregation (we have one man who has done this in my church, where he serves as a trusted and gentle Elder) where everyone knows he is a retired pastor but he has never been our pastor.


The problems arise when the retiring pastor tries to manipulate congregational life after his ministry ends.  Some pastors do that by staying around and listening to the complaints and concerns of people rather than setting boundaries and directing them to the interim/vacancy or succeeding pastor.  Some pastors try to manipulate the future with elaborate plans and schedules involving the date of their retirement relative to the date of the installation of the new pastor.  We even heard a story of a pastor who talked his congregation into calling a man to be his associate for a few years; then they switched roles and the older man became the associate and the newer one became the senior pastor; finally the older man retired but hung around acting like the Senior Pastor until the newer man left years later and continued that way several years into the ministry of the next man!


Having heard all these stories, here are several observations we made:


As with many retiring people who form their identity based on their job, the pastor whose identity is based on his role as pastor will often be depressed or discouraged and have a hard time letting go in retirement.  The best recommendation here is, as I have heard Dr. Terry Wardle of Ashland Thelogical Seminary say numerous times, “don’t base your identity on something that can be taken away.”


We’re often afraid to confront manipulative / bullying people in the church (including pastors) because (a) we’re afraid they may get angry and leave or (b) we think that we must suffer because Jesus suffered -and “the servant is not above the master.”  Yet although Jesus was not afraid of His own suffering, neither was He afraid to set boundaries against some folks so that they would not cause others to suffer (e.g., the little children parents brought for His blessing, the prostitute being criticized for pouring perfume on His feet).


Toward the end of Moses’ ministry God took him up to the mountaintop and handed the reins over to Joshua, then removed Moses from the picture by taking his life (He did the same to Elijah).  For both Joshua and Elisha, for the people of Israel as well, the ministries of the great predecessors had definite ending points that all had to deal with together – with neither Moses nor Elisha in sight to oversee the transition.


Samuel, on the other hand, was “voted out of office” when the people decided they wanted a king.  While God told him that they were acting against God and not Samuel, I guess Samuel had to live with that.  But since they had rejected his leadership he couldn’t very well pretend to keep leading them, could he?  So perhaps he lived the rest of his life as a sort of pundit / prophet, commenting but not leading.  Yet I’m pretty sure that this is not the most healthy role for a retired pastor, either, as there can be a mighty fine line between “prophet” and “grump.”


Finally, David had in mind to build a temple for the Lord but was told “not you, but your son will build the temple.”  David was satisfied with this, though, and spent considerable effort gathering resources and materials so that Solomon wouldn’t have to waste time doing that himself.  Perhaps it is wise to make appropriate preparations for retirement, to prepare the congregation and the people for the need to face the event and the issues; but like David to understand that though you can assemble the materials, it really is the successor to whom it falls to build them into the next ministry.


Amos, John, and You and Me

Readings for July 15, 2012 / Revised Common Lectionary:  Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29

One of the discouraging things about undertaking any new ministry is that, while you seem excited and all “visionary” about the possibilities, others just don’t seem to care.  It takes a long time for your ideas to catch on, if ever.  Pastors new to their congregations come with good ideas, but they fall on deaf ears.  People go to seminars, like Formational Prayer Seminars, and see the exciting ways in which God is working in the ministry of Formational Prayer.  Then they go home to stony faces or glazed-over eyes or unresponsive boards, and get discouraged.  So they come back to the next seminar (or email some caregiver like me, or maybe the seminar office) and ask what they can do to get a ministry started in their congregation.  How can we move people and get them motivated?  There are a lot of techniques, I suppose, that will help, but in these two readings especially there is at least one possibility that we almost never consider.

Perhaps we should begin by saying, seek the voice of the Holy Spirit to discern just what your calling is.  Not just “pastor” or “formational prayer caregiver” or whatever other ministry you may want to undertake.  But what is your calling in the place you have been called to?  What is your calling in this kairos?  What is it that the Lord needs you to do, has called you to do, is giving you the gifts to do?  His calls to Amos and to John, and his messages through Amos and John, were very specific.  Both of these men could have asked “why isn’t anyone excited about my message” when in fact their messages were intended to upset their ultimate targets – and upset them they did!  In Amos’ case he was lambasted by the priest at Bethel; in John’s case he lost his life because of his calling.

I truly pray that neither you nor I lose our lives because of our callings as pastors, or caregivers, or formational pray-ers, or whatever ministry we may be in.  But we know that others have been martyred for their testimony, and so maybe you’re OK with that.  What we don’t expect is cold silence or unreceptive gazes.  But before we get upset and wonder what’s wrong with these slow people, stop and spend some time in the company of the Holy Spirit and try to learn what it is He is calling you to do.  It may not be what you think and expect.

Who’s to Blame?

I’m reading the RCL lessons for this coming Sunday – Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-13 – and notice a similar theme.  Ezekiel is called by the Lord to preach specifically to people whom the Lord knows (and so does Ezekiel) are not about to listen to him; when Jesus goes to Nazareth to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to them, they refuse to listen to Him as well.  In fact, Mark notes that their unbelief was so stubborn that Jesus could not perform any miracles there.

Sometimes in our pastoral work we can feel like we’re just bashing our head against a brick wall.  Our preaching isn’t having an effect.  Nobody is listening to our suggestions.  Despite our best efforts, the congregation isn’t growing.  We think we are doing everything we possibly can, but nothing seems to be happening.

Some twenty years ago or so some consultants did a study of congregations in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that concluded that the chief reason that congregations in our church don’t grow in numbers is because the pastors of those congregations spend their time doing wrong tasks.  Their prescription was that the pastors should change and do right tasks, and the churches would grow.  We’ve been fighting about that prescription ever since.

Should the pastor take the blame if the church doesn’t grow?  Should he blame the congregation, and say that they’re as stubborn as the people Ezekiel was sent to?  Should they together blame their surrounding demographic?

After years of wrestling with these questions, and coming up to this Sunday’s readings, I’m ready to say that we never should have been asking these questions in the first place.  Blame-casting really only wounds rather than helps the person or group on whom the blame falls; but beyond that, these Scriptures show us that our focus on these questions was way off base in the first place.

More basic to the understanding of the pastoral task is the pastor’s identity.  The people of Nazareth asked of Jesus, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?  Isn’t his mother Mary?”  and on and on.  Of course He was – but that’s not all He was.  He also was the Son of God.  His identity was not defined solely by the people of Nazareth, or by His human parents, but more importantly by His heavenly Father.  And pastors, preachers, our identity is not defined solely by the congregations we serve, or by the perceptions of people around us, but more importantly by our own Heavenly Father.  Our identity is not “preacher” or “pastor” or “church grower”; our identity is “beloved child of the Heavenly Father.”  He has loved us with an everlasting love, and because of His great love for us in Jesus He has no condemnation for us ever, even if we fail in the pastoral ministry.

Overlay on top of identity the pastor’s call.  God specifically called Ezekiel to a ministry that they both knew would be difficult.  They both knew the people would be stubborn, unresponsive, and recalcitrant.  The both knew that Ezekiel’s ministry would probably not be “successful” by human standards.  But Ezekiel’s call was to preach the word of God to them regardless of the results – as Paul might say, “in season and out of season.”  And, pastors, your call may not be to plant a church or lead a megachurch or have an easy ministry.  It might just be the call of God for you to go to stubborn, unresponsive, recalcitrant people and preach the love of God to them without acknowledgement or appreciation or even effect.  I don’t know what your call is – some days I’m still trying to discern mine.

What I do know is this – I know that you are a child of God for the sake of His Son Jesus.  I do know that His call to you is unique, like Ezekiel’s was.  God probably did not call you into “the ministry” – it’s more likely that He called you into a particular ministry at a particular time in a particular place for a particular reason.  And He has given you the Holy Spirit to help you carry out that call.  Rather than discerning your best course of action according to consultants and advisors, you and I are doubtless way better off seeking to discern the call that God has for us, and faithfully discharge the duties of that call regardless of the earthly results.

Mark 3:20-30 – The sin against the Holy Spirit?

A post from The Formational Pastor

For June 10, 2012 (Proper 5 / Second Sunday after Pentecost)

The against the Holy Spirit is said by Jesus to be the one sin that is unforgivable.  But why?

The classic answer is that it involves stubborn and persistent resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit, resulting in terminal unbelief for the individual.  But that’s only one aspect of this sin.  There are at least two more, which we might infer from the rest of the story.

Aspect #2:  Imagine you are one of the crowd sitting around Jesus, hearing this exchange.  Imagine you are someone from whom He has cast out demons – maybe Mary Magdalene, from whom He cast out seven demons.  Your life has been turned upside down – you’ve been totally transformed – and now all you want to do is to follow this Jesus and devote everything you are and have to Him in love.  Now there come some people from Jerusalem and say to you, in effect, “The demons you had were like some gang of local punks, but this Jesus is the head of a ruthless cartel.”  Would that shake your faith foundation?  Would that cause you to doubt or wonder?  Whether it would or not, that kind of tactic from those men has no other purpose than to undermine your faith in Jesus, and that is part two of the sin against the Holy Spirit who has been working hard to strengthen that faith day by day.  Empowered living, lies and distortions, re-wounding

Aspect #3:  The fact that Jesus begins His response to these men by saying “A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand” means that He views this not simply as an issue of personal faith, but ultimately as an issue involving the clash of the Kingdom of Heaven with the kingdom of Satan.

I John 1:8-10

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (NIV)

Our fellowship together as Christians requires openness and vulnerability.  Openness is me revealing to you my heart, my dreams, my disappointments, my sadness and my joys.  It is me showing you my inward life, so that perhaps you can understand me better.  Vulnerability is me opening my arms to you, inviting you to come in to my embrace.  There’s always a risk in that, as the Prodigal Father knew (Luke 15) – my open arms and my invitation are not a grabbing at you and a forcing of you into my clutches, but an invitation that you are free to decline, even to reject.  Still, the more open and vulnerable I am with you, and the more open and vulnerable you are with me, the stronger our fellowship may become.

But there are times when I am fooling myself when I think I am being open and vulnerable to you.  Sometimes I hear words coming out of my mouth like “I’m only human” or “well, that’s who I am.”  Most of the time I hear them not with tones of sadness, tears and Godly contrition but with tones more like defiance, even pride.  Since I use them when I’m being defensive, I know they are bricks in the wall I build between us, not true efforts at fellowship.  And yet I fool myself into thinking that I’m being humble or honest or open with you, when I’m really daring you to storm the wall from your side.

When I do that with God, He is ready to open His inviting, grace-filled arms to pour out His patient and faithful love  over my rebellion and invite me back into His embrace, to be warmed and welcomed at His heart.  But there are a number of reasons why I still stand off to the side and tell Him I’m fine without that embrace – pride, self-protection, stubbornness and more.  Nevertheless He patiently waits for me to come to my senses and take Him up at His invitation, knowing that I will not regret it in the end.

And if I am open and vulnerable with you, and you with me, will we regret it in the end?  If we show our hearts to each other, and open our arms to embrace each other, will we regret the fellowship that may result?  Or will we fall into that fellowship the way the Prodigal Son fell into the Prodigal Father’s arms, clinging to that love and welcome for all he was worth?  I think the latter.  And this kind of fellowship that we have with one another, modeled as it is after the fellowship we have with our Prodigal Father, will strengthen us both as we face the trials and troubles of the world.

Will you take my hand?

God bless us everyone!

1 John 1:1-4

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete. (NIV)

If we try to define the Trinity from a structural point of view, we end up describing a skeleton without any of the vitality, breath, or even life.  That’s why the Athanasian Creed is so hard, sometimes, for us to grasp – it seems to present us with a structural God rather than a living God.  Not that structure is bad – as vertebrates we like that internal skeleton – but the structure does not tell the whole story.  The better term to describe the relationship between Father and Son and Holy Spirit is fellowship.  That’s going beyond structure to relationship, to friendship, to heart and hand and eye and ear and even love; to dancing together and working together and laughing and crying together; to enjoying one another’s company around a table long after the meal has ended.

And that’s what Jesus invites us into when He calls us to faith as people in His church – to fellowship, not just to membership.  “Membership” places us in a ledger; fellowship places us at the Table.  “Membership” proposes obligations; fellowship proposes offerings.  “Membership” defines roles; fellowship describes relationships.  Whether it’s “membership” in a Synod, a congregation, or a Circuit Pastors’ Conference, the purpose is administrative.  But “fellowship” is completely different – whether in a congregation, a Conference, or a Synod.  The fellowship that we have with one another is an icon of the fellowship within the Trinity.  Do you want to know what the interior life of the Trinity looks like?  Look at the fellowship to which Christ calls His believers.

The Church is not the structure, and we are not members of the Church.  The Church, the body of Christ and His Bride, is the icon of the Trinity and both are described best by the word “fellowship.”  And the way we relate to one another is best described by the word “fellowship.”  And even though that fellowship sometimes looks thin and sometimes looks strained and sometimes looks weakened, it is still what holds us together; it is still worth hanging on to; it is still worth fighting for.

I go an extra mile for someone who compels me because that’s what Christ commanded me to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship I don’t bother to measure the mile.  I lend my coat and my cloak to someone in need because that is the compassionate thing to do; but for the one with whom I am in fellowship there is no IOU, no due date, and no limit to what I will give him.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let the fellowship we have with one another (not in general only, but you, the reader, in the fellowship you have with me personally) clearly and brightly reflect for each of us and for those around us the fellowship of the Trinity, so that both of us and everyone else may see the love of Jesus for us and for them.

God bless us everyone!

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